Jonathan Mirsky: journalist who went from fan of Mao to fierce critic of Beijing | Pierre Beaumont

Jonathan Mirsky, the Observer a former correspondent in China, who died at the age of 88, was keenly aware of the increasing danger of bullets furrowing through Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989 as units of the People’s Liberation Army were dispatched to disperse the protests. He also knew he desperately needed to send his copy to London.

Writing about the experience 30 years later, Mirsky admitted that few people initially had any idea of ​​the extent of the violence that was unleashed on the students in the square. All of that, however, was going to change quickly.

“At three in the morning, I was afraid I would be killed,” Mirsky recalls. “But I knew I had to file the story for the newspaper. As the silvery trails of the bullets lit up the darkness, a student next to me said, “Don’t worry. The soldiers use white people. Seconds later, he collapsed, dead, with a wet red circle on his chest.

“As I started to leave the square,” Mirsky continued, “I came across a group of armed policemen whose pants had been set alight by Molotov cocktails thrown by workers. When they saw me pass, they shouted at me to stop. I said, “Don’t hit me. I’m a journalist.” Their officer shouted back, in Chinese, “Fuck you, we’re going to kill you.” “

“As they started hitting me with their rubber batons, the officer shot at fallen demonstrators. My left arm was fractured, half a dozen teeth were knocked out, and I thought I was done. But a British journalist running out of the square swerved, took my arm and led me away. I managed to dictate my story over the phone to a Observer copytaker who asked me, ‘Hey buddy, is everything okay?’ “

Jonathan Mirsky.

Warm, witty, and deeply intellectual, Mirsky was a trained and inclined historian who moved from academia to journalism, a somewhat unusual figure in the world. Observer time. As Jonathan Steele explained in his Mirsky obituary for the Guardian, Mirsky had “started out as a leading and eminent academic critic of the United States’ role in the Vietnam War, featuring numerous protest marches and classes on campus.”

Although initially predisposed to be sympathetic to Maoism in China, a six-week guided trip for young Chinese scholars in 1972 convinced him that something darker was at work under official claims of progress. This would become a hallmark of Mirsky throughout his long and distinguished career: a constant and active interrogation of his own assumptions, refining his understanding of China and his own reporting. An example was a piece for the New York Book Review on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square describing the heady days of May leading up to the massacre.

“At the end of May, I and several other journalists saw these tanks pulling away, along with trucks full of soldiers, who had been stranded and berated in the suburbs before they too left.

“Now I really thought the party was over. How wrong we were – the foreign journalists, China’s overseas observers, and many Chinese themselves. “

Born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania, Mirsky has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, comparative literature, and Chinese at the University of Cambridge, University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College, where he was recalled. like a warm and generous teacher. Unsuccessful in securing a post at Dartmouth, where he had been a prominent anti-war campaigner on campus, Mirsky moved to London in 1975 and pursued a new career in journalism. He wrote about Chinese-occupied Tibet for the Observer, based on a number of reporting trips, understanding – as Steele explains – that the repression in Tibet was not “just about communism but the racist imperialism of the Han Chinese towards ethnic minorities”.

But his greatest legacy would be his indictments of the China Mao had shaped and Tiananmen Square.

In a review by Frank Dikötter The tragedy of liberation in the Literary journal in 2013, he linked these concerns over the years by discussing the Maoist use of “thought reform” with chilling reference to a friend’s experience of how dictatorship is reshaping reality:

“Robert Ford, the Dalai Lama’s radio operator,” Mirsky said, “was detained for four years after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and described what happened to his mind:“ When you are spiritually tortured by thought reform, there is nowhere you can go. It affects you on the deepest and deepest levels and attacks your very identity.

“Many young Chinese, repeating the official line, claim that what happened in Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989 was a” riot in which malicious people shot our police and soldiers. ” “

In the end, the Chinese Communist Party had had enough, banning Mirsky from China and going so far as to suppress, in 2010, a four-page article he had written for News week from copies on sale in China. He recounted the episode in the New York Book Review. “At the end of December, a foreign correspondent in Beijing emailed me telling me that a four-page article on China I had written for a special New Year’s edition of News week had been carefully ripped from each of the 731 copies of the magazine on sale in China. Now friends and colleagues tell me what an honor it is to be banned from writing in the People’s Republic.

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